They sat sparkling on a powerline. Huddled together in the sun after a shower of rain had passed through. A fifth sat a little further off, like a barely tolerated younger sibling that could be oh-so annoying. Sitting above butter yellow gorse, against a green backdrop of fields that is so vivid we spent all afternoon commenting on how unreal and artificial it seemed. Starlings. Gorse. Verdant paddocks. Little things that remind me of how different this place is from what I now call home. The differences announced themselves at first light with audio cues. The constant blackbird and thrush chatter, and the calling of ewes to lambs and lost lambs bleating for ewes. All so familiar and yet equally so far removed by all those decades the sounds startle me even while they transport me to childhood times when they were a common backdrop. The whole day has been marked by those sorts of cues and reminders.
After a slow start we drive up to Dunedin to pick up some gas canisters (though Dylan has no need of doing so – he had unwittingly brought one over on the plane from Melbourne) but we took the opportunity to divert there via Taeiri Gorge, or rather the approaches to it. It’s a place flooded with memories of long kayaking adventures. Of kayaking camp outs. Of being left in the dark on a sandbar armed with a spear and a spotlight connected to a car battery kept afloat by an inflatable inner tube. Trying to catch flounder in the middle of the Taeiri River. I never saw any flounder that I recall but do remember being jumped by a large eel that had been attracted to the light. It was no threat to me but it startled me enough for me to pull the wires off the battery and I was left in pitch like dark until I was able to get it reconnected – the last thing I needed was to be run down by the jet boat that was running up and down the river dropping off and picking up other great white flounder hunters! Of Rosie sinking her kayak in front of us through surging water that was starting to boil white. Of a ‘secret’ camp site and hidden scythe we used to drop the weeds every time we called in. I watch the water silently slipping past and wonder if it’s still there. I want to go and find out but it’s down the gorge proper, out of sight. And besides, it’s on the other side and I would need a kayak to get there.
We get into town, pick up our gas from an exuberant young sales guy then drive up to Cannington Road. I was born in this town and lived on this street until I was five. The house is still there. So too the Bullock Track. The playground. The neighbour’s house through whose windows we would watch TV. I wonder whatever became of them. There are a lot of memories on this street. But I am hard pressed to know why I come back and stir them up. None of them are bad. But who knows why we return to our headwaters and sniff around these founding places?
Back to Waihola where we spend a bit more time looking around. Tracks I cut, and Douglas Fir I planted in December 1976 are still there. Signature marks made by Stephen and I as we cut into the gorse and planted those tiny saplings. There is a strange satisfaction to walk under those tall trees and walk on those tracks again. Maybe we come back to these places hoping against hope that there is some significance in what we have done and where we have been. Trees that eventually be cut down and faint scratchings on the hill. For now I know they are mine. But no one else does. Does any of it really matter? The site matters actually, for through it many lives have been transformed for the better and there is some satisfaction in knowing there was an association with it. We wander through the original homestead, a two story place that is now very saccharine and functional though mostly charmless. It contains rooms which still echo the banter and humour of long nights of teenage boys confiding in each other, sharing and joking, of forged friendships that pick up as if we have never left. Before we depart Waihola I hear Tim say that as a child he loved playing up under the young Douglas Firs which then were in the process of choking out Himalayan Fuchsia. Tim is now the site manager with his own family enjoying living on the property. That’s kind of cool.
We drive down the coast via the Catlins, digging up more memories at Nugget Point and Pounawea where isolated coastlines and tiny hamlets are not as isolated or as tiny as I remember them. Or maybe they are – but now as a driver rather than a passenger we come on them more quickly than I expect. But they do seem as if we were here only yesterday.
We push on to Invercargill along a beautiful coastal drive that takes us through bush and farmland and tiny settlements. Into valleys so green we slow down and sometimes stop in order to take it in. Up onto ridges that give us the ocean and also the distant views to a distant Stewart Island. Past clear streams, old farmhouses that should be condemned and indolent drivers even slower than we are. In and out of showers of rain. Past four plus one starlings. And on into Invercargill where I discover I have messed up our hotel booking. Fortunately we were rescued by a neighbouring Inn. (It must be getting close to Christmas). This town is not as affluent or as ‘hip’ as Dunedin and while we shop for a burger among empty ‘For Rent’ premises the local lads loop around in senseless circles in the clapped out Camrys and Subarus. One specialises in backfiring his way up and down the main street. A police car drifts through but the cars ignore him, and he them and the noise continues unabated. In Invercargill, one of the world’s most southern settlements, at the end of the earth, in the evening there is little else to do.
So we finish the day in a comfy bed but with a noisy street below us. For the next week I am counting on a not so comfy bed and only the noise of the bush to distract us.
Stewart Island November 12 2016
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